Out of Sorts is my first read by blogger Sarah Bessey. The book details her efforts to reconcile the different parts of her experiences with church. Though she does not go into detail about the kinds of hurts she has sustained, we gather that there have been some; she also discusses various questions over the years that haven’t been completely answered.
As with other reviews lately, this one comes several weeks after reading the book. When I first finished it, I might have felt more strongly about it than I do now, but what I’m left with is a sense of having had a good conversation with someone — the details of which I have largely forgotten. Looking over my notes and highlights (I read the book on the Kindle), I see that many of Bessey’s frustrations with how Scripture is (mis)used to justify certain human institutions resonated with me. When I read it, I had just heard some justification of my own church’s position that women should not be elders or allowed to teach men; the rationale was based on Paul’s words in I Tim. 2, and I was unconvinced (for several reasons, none of which include a desire or calling to teach/preach in church). Bessey comes from a similar perspective and has worked through similar reactions.
In the end, she worked through her disillusionment and has returned to church, affirming bits and pieces of many different traditions. This is ultimately an affirming book by someone who recognizes, as I do, that we need Christian community and can find God’s work being done even in desperately flawed institutions.
Rachel Held Evans is an edgier, often angrier voice on the same subject. In some ways I could relate to her too. She discusses similar feelings and goes into more detail about various frustrations over the years in church, her departure, and her eventual return to a different tradition (Episcopal rather than evangelical).
Evans’s writing is more polished and precise, and (not to overdo the “p” words) I found it more powerful as well. Though she is 32 at the time she writes this book, she explains that she relates to the Millenial sensibility and is often asked to speak on why this generation is dropping out of church. Her approach is autobiographical, and while she points out that she doesn’t presume to speak for anyone but herself, I think many Milennials would relate.
Reading Evans right after Bessey was an interesting experience. Evans can be quite snarky, which makes for some laughs but also builds up in me a sort of guardedness. I found myself skeptical of the church experiences she describes and wondered if she was exaggerating. For instance, the extreme legalism and judgmentalism of her southern Baptist background seemed over the top. I’ve grown up evangelical, and though I haven’t always been satisfied with the answers, I’ve never been condemned for questioning; one of the formative experiences in my faith was the 7th grade Sunday school teacher who restructured the whole class to address our questions once she discovered I was asking about how one might “prove” the existence of God. Evans acknowledges the kindness and support of her church families over the years in many practical, meaningful ways, but I still wondered if her depictions of the negatives were really fair or accurate.
Though both of these writers end up affirming of “church,” they raised some questions for me, questions I’m not altogether sure how to answer. They both express the inclusive ethos of our time, and I certainly believe the church should be a welcoming place. Evans puts her finger on something important when she writes that church should not be a place where we all put on an act, but a place where we “confess our faults to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed.” It should not be a place where even the most reviled sinners are afraid to come.
Yet isn’t it also a place where genuine repentance — genuine turning from sin — happens? For instance, while I can agree that the evangelical church’s voice in politics and the culture wars is often inconsistent with the way Jesus related to people, Jesus did not have an “anything goes” attitude. He confronted destructive lifestyle choices and he confronted sin. The difference is that he didn’t do it through official forms, and he didn’t do it en masse; he related to individuals who knew he cared, and who recognized and granted his authority.
We attended a church for 9 years in which the emphasis was on “brokenness.” It’s all too true that we are broken in this fallen world, but this is not where we remain once we give our lives to Christ; he heals, restores, produces fruit in us, gives us a stake in his redemptive work in the world. This involves turning from the sin that causes “brokenness.” So while I agree that church should be a welcoming place and not a power structure or social club, it should also not be a place where we remain the same. I realize authors must choose a focus, but I would have liked to see more awareness of the dynamics of repentance and growth.
Last but not least comes Fahrenheit 451. What an interesting read this was! Written in 1950, Bradbury’s novel about a dystopian society where books are burned accurately forecasts the growing dominion of screens and what it does to humanity. Focusing on Guy Montag, a fireman who develops a secret interest in (and stash of) books even though his job is to burn them, Bradbury explores the question of what makes us human.
All in all, it’s not so much a book about books/reading as it is about humane living. As Faber, a former literature professor, explains to Montag,
It’s not books you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what the books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.
An inquiring, observing orientation in the world rates highly in Bradbury’s idea of what makes life fulfilling, but this is all but lost in the world of Fahrenheit 451. Montag’s wife spends her days in the living room, three walls of which are giant television screens that continuously broadcast. She has a converter that personalizes all comments the people onscreen make, reinforcing the illusion that she is part of the onscreen world. (It’s not too hard to make the jump to “social media,” is it?) She calls them “the family,” and her connection to the characters on television includes more emotional involvement and attraction than her relationship with her husband. Long before the widescreen t.v. was a reality, and even longer before the iPhone stole our eyes from one another, Bradbury imagined the effects of a screen-controlled world on relationships between people and each other, and between people and everything else.
I finished this book last week, but this week I’m reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in preparation for our reading next year in conjunction with modern history. I find it intriguing to consider both novels as perspectives on servitude and oppression, though the populations are different. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the whites cruelly enslave the blacks in the morally indefensible institution of slavery; but a century later in Bradbury’s world, everyone is willingly enslaved by a dimly conceived political structure that we never really see.